Who would have thought that I would actually stick with it and finish a book of the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020 longlist? Not me! But here we are. I decided to start my journey with Queenie, because it’s one of the only ones on the longlist that I previously owned and that I was super excited to read. This book has gotten a lot of buzz, and I’ve been meaning to read it for ages, way before it was even published. So it being longlisted was just the push I needed to finally pick it up. And this was one of the books on the list that I was most excited to read, and was sure I was going to love it. But that did not happen.
Queenie follows a 25-year-old Jamaican British woman, Queenie, in the aftermath of her super messy breakup with her long-term boyfriend, and we follow her as she tries to deal with that and makes very bad choices along the way.
There’s a lot to chew on in this novel, and I enjoyed all the central themes of this novel immensely. I loved that this book explores mental health, and especially the cultural stigma around it. Queenie goes through some really difficult things with her mental health, and the way she goes about seeking help and how her family reacts to the fact that she wants to see a therapist was really well portrayed. Moreover, I think that the way her mental health problems were written was very nuanced and I really appreciated that.
I also really enjoyed how the topic of internalized racism was explored in here and how it affects young black women today. I also think that the discussions of childhood trauma and how they end up spilling into the way we handle other relationships in our lives was really well done.
Additionally, I enjoyed the way female friendships were portrayed. Queenie has three best friends, and has a very different dynamic with all three, and I think that was a really good choice – it allowed for a representation of female friendships that is varied and multifaceted and I really liked that. I also think Queenie’s relationship with her family and their dynamic was lovely and nuanced, and I wish we got even more of it.
And finally, I think Carty-Williams’ writing is really accessible and easy to read, while also managing to be evocative of Queenie as a character. It made the characters feel more real and authentic and I really appreciated that.
So I want to stress that there is a lot to love here. And moreover, I am just glad that a story about a young black woman in Britain has done so well. Despite all that, I did not enjoy this novel that much. For a number of different reasons.
Firstly, the first 2/3 of this novel are incredibly repetitive. It’s just a string of bad choices, and sex with awful men who treat Queenie awfully, and her completely disassociating from that. And the thing that bothered me most here is that it is clear that Queenie’s mental health is deteriorating throughout, but the narrative voice in here is so jolly and lighthearted, which is really jarring. This book is marketed as light-hearted and while the content is definitely not all that light-hearted, the narrative style and voice are, which just did not work for me. It’s very hard to read about borderline sexual abuse that is written in a voice that makes me feel like I am reading a rom-com. It just clashed and it did not work for me.
And like I said, Queenie deals with her issues by disassociating, which makes it really hard to get emotionally attached to the story. I think it’s definitely due to who I am as a reader – I needed more of Queenie’s inner thoughts and feelings to actually get invested in this story. But since she is so detached from the stuff that is happening to her (which is valid, a lot of people deal with issues like that), it made her more annoying than relatable in my opinion.
The last third of the novel is way better in my opinion, but I still needed more of Queenie’s inner life, even in this part. I also did not like how abrupt the shift in tone was, and how stuff that was sort of the integral root of Queenie’s problems was revealed in this part and not earlier. This does add perspective to the novel and Queenie as a character, and I would have much preferred if it was mentioned earlier and given the time and nuance it needed. I just wish that these two obvious parts were interwoven together more naturally instead of just dumping this stuff in the last 30 percent of the novel.
I also think that this book got really preachy and on the nose at times, when it really did not need to do that. I much prefer when the “messages” of the novel are made obvious through the narrative, instead of having the character actually say them out loud in a statement bordering a monologue. I don’t like being spoon-fed stuff, but more importantly, this book and this story did not need that, it could have spoken for itself and I think that would have made it a lot stronger.
While there’s a lot to love here, I just did not like the execution of this novel. I would still recommend checking it out if it sounds like your kind of thing, and if the stuff that I mentioned that bothers me doesn’t bother you, but the way it was handled just was not for me.
ALSO, I am stealing Hannah’s format and showing my current rankings of the Women’s Prize Longlist books.
1. Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams
I would love to hear from you! Have you been reading anything from the longlist? Thoughts so far? Have you read Queenie? Let me know!
In the meantime, happy reading
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